light into ashes
Nov 7, 2012 2:46am
The Playin' Palindromes
In honor of 11/17/73 being selected for the next official release, I thought I’d post a few words on the famous Playin’ in the Band palindrome the Dead played just a few times – Playin’>Uncle John>Morning Dew>UJB reprise>Playin’ reprise – and how it fit in with the Playin’ medleys they started doing that fall.
Our story starts a year earlier in 1972, with the first Playin’ medley:
10/18/72 Playin’>drums>Dark Star>Morning Dew>Playin’
By late ’72, Playin’ was appearing in the second sets less often – about a half-dozen times that fall, sometimes to open the set, and often it would be the big second-set jam. 10/18 was the only time that year it opened up into a giant medley.
The Playin’ jam is tougher, more energetic & slashing than it would be in late ’73 – it’s like the music is rushing out in a torrent. But after the long frenzy, it sounds like they just run out of steam; the jam tapers out and we get a drum solo. (It was very rare for Playin’ to go into a drum solo in those years – 9/21/74 and 10/20/74 come to mind, but those were special occasions.)
Coming out of the drum solo, the Dead surprise everyone and launch Dark Star with a magical preverse jam. After the verse, Garcia finds a wistful melody, which leads into a looser Playin’-style jam. This becomes more abstract and atonal, and a Tiger takes shape. The Tiger is kept rather brief & mild – it trickles out into quiet wah-wah strands while Phil plucks randomly. The atmosphere is tense & stormy, and Phil starts getting more rambunctious with big chords. The rest of the band steps out for him to take a solo, which leads up to a Philo Stomp. The others slowly join back in, but aren’t very coordinated, and it peters out into silence. So Phil starts a Feelin’ Groovy jam – this is more satisfying for the band, and they dig into it at length. After a few minutes they abruptly stop and make a right-turn toward Morning Dew in an odd shift.
It’s a strong Dew with an unusual ending – as they’re building up to the last “guess it doesn’t matter anyway,” right at the climax they skip the line and all jump right back into a full-bore Playin’ jam, as if they’d planned it. This technique is one they’d developed in the previous couple years, dropping a tune like Me & My Uncle seamlessly into Other One jams which would continue straight from the last chord as if nothing had happened. (This is unique in 1972 Dews, especially leaving the song unfinished, but as we’ll see they followed up on this idea a year later.)
The Playin’ reprise is short, but the return to the chorus really rocks out – note that Weir and Donna BOTH scream at the reentry! In 1972 the song-ending outro was still kept short, but you can feel Garcia straining to keep going, and the need for the band to keep riding out the wave for it to have its full effect; so in ’73 this part would be much expanded.http://archive.org/details/gd72-10-18.sbd.weir.7295.sbeok.shnf
This is a lonely example of a 1972 Playin’ medley - for whatever reason, they didn’t do any more Playin’ sandwiches for another year. (One similar medley worth mentioning is the WRS Prelude>Dark Star>Eyes>Playin’ on 3/28/73; but it’s more straightforward with no reprises.)
In the fall ’73 tour, Playin’ found a new potential – they started to often use it as a second-set jumping-off point for a medley:
10/21/73 Playin’>MS Half-Step>Big River>Playin’
The Playin’ jam is energetic, if somewhat static; as it ends they play some jam-ending flourishes, signaling that they’re ready to move on. They apparently know they're about to segue into Mississippi Half-Step, for they fall right into it. At the end of Half-Step they throw a bunch of teases at each other (it sounds like Weir wants Truckin'), but they decide on Big River. Garcia lands them right back in the Playin’ jam at the last chord of Big River, a nifty move. The jam is quiet & mellow til Phil kicks it into higher gear, and the jam becomes unusually fiery, then lapses back into hypnotic quietness, Garcia teasing the Playin’ riff for a long time as Phil plays harmonics. http://archive.org/details/gd73-10-21.sbd.miller.17413.sbeok.shnf
10/27/73 Playin’>MS Half-Step>Big River>Playin’
Tonight the Playin’ jam is mysterious & breezy - they seem to get stuck for a bit, but rise into a surprising climax. In the pause afterwards, Garcia drops in Mississippi Half-Step again (the band sounds a little more unprepared this time). After a much-too-short ending solo, they come to a complete stop before Weir starts Big River - and interestingly, this time Weir is the one who restarts the Playin’ jam. This is a very nice jam which gradually heats up & tapers down again. http://archive.org/details/gd73-10-27.sbd.wier.16583.sbeok.shnf
They open the second set with Morning Dew – it’s a rather delicate, lukewarm version with a really fine ending jam. The ending is done with a twist: rather than build up to “I guess it doesn't matter anyway,” Garcia starts playing the Playin’ intro, which seems to take the rest of the band by surprise. (The segue is reminiscent of the similar move back on 10/18/72.)
Garcia sets out into deep space right away in the jam. The Playin’ jam is engaging but not incredible – it doesn’t pick up any steam for a long time. When it sounds like Garcia's ready to head back to the main theme, he has a flash and starts playing Uncle John, and the others catch on right away.
Garcia goes way out in the UJB jam - unfortunately, a big cut slices out part of the bridge jam. It sounds like Garcia's going to transform it into a Playin’ jam (he teases the riff), but he backs off and they return to the UJB vocal reprise. That done, Garcia launches right back into a short, crackling Playin’ jam, and they glide back to the chorus.
There’s an extra-long, hot, excited Playin’ outro, well over a minute - almost Sugar Magnolia-like. (Garcia had been lengthening it through '73 with country-style licks; but its length varied from show to show.) http://archive.org/details/gd73-11-01.sbd.parrillo.8834.sbeok.shnf
That set seems to have given them the idea of incorporating both Morning Dew & Uncle John inside Playin’, in the three famous palindromes:
The Playin’ jam gets busier as it goes along, but stays pretty calm without striking moments. Garcia starts Uncle John at a random point - it seems like the others aren't expecting it, but they join him quickly enough.
UJB has a standout end jam, with jagged Garcia soloing that increasingly pushes out the song until they’re back in a Playin’ jam again, with no distinguishing where UJB ended or Playin’ began. There’s a very smooth segue to Morning Dew, perfectly done. It’s a nice Dew, in which Phil stands out.
Weir teases UJB in the end jam, and they skip the last “guess it doesn’t matter” again, carefully timing the switch, but the segue itself is abrupt – half the band seems to think they’re going back to Playin’. The UJB reprise is brief (2 minutes) & segues seamlessly into Playin’ – Weir switches straight from one riff to the other.
The second Playin’ jam is mellow, but not outstanding – it’s neat how Garcia gets quieter & quieter as he plays the main theme while Phil bubbles, then resurges for a spiky outro.
The band sounds more excited tonight. The Playin’ jam is very energized, with Garcia madly abuzz – it’s much better than 11/10. They calm things down for an interlude with Garcia plucking high little notes; then there’s a slow, smooth segue into Uncle John. It's different this time: Garcia doesn't strum the usual opening chords, but seems to accidentally tumble into the calypso-notes intro.
The ending jam is shorter here, and doesn’t leave the UJB format this time. The transition to Dew is also different: Garcia trills for a while to signal a change, the rest of the band quiets down for him, and he plays the downward 'steps' to Dew. Dew doesn't seem very different from 11/10, til the solos: Garcia’s playing is hotter here, and the long, patient end jam is excellent - Garcia fans his way through the climax. They repeat the chords a couple rounds too many at the end perhaps, obviously to synchronize for the UJB segue, but it pays off when they all burst right back into the UJB riff.
They spend little time on the UJB reprise – the end riff segues immediately & smoothly into Playin’, Garcia moving straight to the wah. (You'd think they do it all the time, it sounds so natural.) The second Playin’ jam is longer than 11/10, very much in the vein of the first jam with a frenetic Garcia. The return to the Playin’ riff is a long, slow slide; then they charge into the chorus.
Overall, I think this medley has it all over 11/10 – the only point where I think 11/10 has the advantage is the UJB end jam>transition to Dew.http://archive.org/details/gd1973-11-17.sbd.patched.bec.22799.flac16
(Note that some other copies have a cut in the UJB jam.)
A rare false start to Playin’! Someone's messed with Weir's levels: his vocals are very quiet in the PA; so he stops singing, Playin’ comes apart and the Dead do a little mini-parody of one of their atonal jams. Weir says: “How about it - ah there it is; a thousand pardons folks, we'll try it one more time,” and they go right into the intro again. (It's remarkable how few false starts there were over 30 years, actually.)
The Playin’ jam takes its time to build, but they gradually reach an intense passage. They stay within the song rhythm rather than drifting out; with Garcia staying on wah, it gets particularly dreamy & fascinating. At the end of the jam Garcia switches tones and plays a UJB riff; it seems like they could enter in by the 'back door,' but instead he stops & resumes UJB from the opening chords.
The UJB intro is short; they start singing right away compared to the other two versions. The song portion of UJB is very ragged, since Phil deliberately sings very weirdly. (Was he drunk?) But in the second half, Garcia opens it up into a very spacy Playin’-styled jam, as on 11/10 (Phil even starts playing the Playin’ riff) - we're clearly back in Playin’ for about five minutes.
Phil nudges them into Dew - he sounds eager to start blasting some Dew-bombs, which he does dramatically in the Dew solo. Dew is strong, but I don't think the ending jam equals 11/17, since Garcia only solos for the first couple minutes and then just plays rhythm chords the whole way through the rest.
Again, they manage to pounce on UJB all at once - and once again, it's just a brief vocal stop before they plunge back into the Playin’ jam. The reprise jam has a lot of momentum - returning to the chorus, Garcia spends a lot less time teasing out the Playin’ riff this time. On the other hand, the outro is now stretched out to over a minute.
In short, this medley is gripping but sometimes sloppy, the playing more edgy & often forceful than in '73 – it’s close in quality to the 11/17 version.
There are just a couple shows from this period where they do Playin’>UJB>Playin’:
Garcia follows the usual pattern of starting the Playin’ jam with deep, spacy wah-wah and moving to a more jazzy style. The jam is pleasant but seems uninspired. By 12min they seem to run out of steam and coast for a while. Finally Weir starts the UJB chords, which the others aren't expecting, and it takes them a few bars to catch on.
This is a longer UJB than the others – it opens with a nice long jam, with a bumblebee solo from Garcia, and has a fine middle solo (though the bridge jam is brief). The ending is cut short as they all return to Playin’, Weir deftly switching from the closing UJB riff to the Playin’ riff.
And we're back in spaciness - Phil wants to let loose with some bombs & feedback, giving this jam a heavy feel. Over a deep Phil drone, Garcia plays delicate notes (something they'd return to on 12/6, at greater length). But it doesn't turn into a full-fledged space, for Garcia then restarts the main theme & heads back to the chorus. There's a long, spirited, extended outro. http://archive.org/details/gd1973-12-01.sbd.miller.112205.flac16
This Playin’ ends the first set – as usual it develops from the opening spacy wah to a jazzy jam (including a Keith solo), and back to spaciness. This is a mostly unexceptional & solid Playin’ which stays pretty calm with no peaks & valleys or frenzied passages til the end. (Phil & Keith sit out for a while.) Then after 15min it gets frenetic for a brief spell - they quiet down, then Phil steps in with heavy bass chords & Garcia switches to a stinging fuzzy tone (his Spanish Jam sound) while Phil feeds back.
After this bit of intensity, Garcia stumbles onto the soothing opening of UJB. The middle solo isn't that long, but there’s a nice, spirited bridge jam. After the final vocals they spin out into a short free jam; then Garcia quietly plays off the Playin’ theme for a few minutes, drawing it out, sounding like tinkling chimes, til he finally drops down for the chorus. He tries out a neat stuttering effect in the outro. http://archive.org/details/gd1974-06-30.sbd.miller.96275.sbeok.flac16
There are all kinds of transitions in these medleys – some planned, some a surprise to the band. Eric Wybenga wrote in Dead to the Core: “Listen to the 11/17/73 UCLA Playin’>Uncle John’s and the way the notes of Uncle John’s gently insinuate themselves into the fabric of Playin’. One minute you’re listening to a fine Playin’ jam; if you so much as aurally blink, you’ll realize you’re in Uncle John’s without the slightest notion of how you got there or when you arrived. Granted, the move from Playin’ in D, to Uncle John’s in G, requires only the alteration of one note, but there are real differences in the forms of the two tunes, and the Dead never fully show their hand until the game is won [and] the transition is a fait accompli.”
That’s one type of transition, though, and we’ve heard others – sometimes one member will hint a line to the others in a jam, and they’ll prepare for the oncoming song; sometimes someone will just start a new song abruptly, and the rest will catch up; sometimes the band know where they’re going but just make an abrupt jump-cut into the next tune rather than a gradual transition. Even more interesting (and something they were more practiced at) is when they hop from the end of a song into a new jam, without a pause. For a while there they seemed to delight in leaving Dews and Johns ‘unfinished’ as they hurtled back to a freeform Playin’ jam on cue.
They stopped doing this palindrome after 3/23/74, though – perhaps they felt it was played out.
Here’s a list of all the Playin’>UJB combos. It was quite common in the ‘80s; I only cover the early ones here, but this list takes the story through the Dead’s career: http://transitiveaxis.forumup.us/viewtopic.php?t=674
You would think after all the Playin’ medleys of late ’73, they would continue that idea in ’74. 12/2/73 is a unique, awesome example of an unfinished Playin’ in the middle of a set-long medley – but they wouldn’t do something like that again for years. Most of the other Playin's in ‘73/'74 were standalones, with a few exceptions:
11/21/73 MS Half-Step>Playin’>El Paso>jam>Wharf Rat>Playin’>Morning Dew
Mississippi Half-Step opens the second set. It ends in standard fashion; then they all go immediately into Playin’ at the close, so that was probably planned.
The Playin’ jam is excellent. Weir teases El Paso a minute before they go into it; the others ignore him, but undeterred, he keeps bringing it up until the others succumb.
The last chord of El Paso dissolves instantly back into a brisk Playin’ jam, as if it was never interrupted. This only lasts a minute, though, before they decide to shift gears and switch to a very interesting Wharf Rat jam. This soon takes on marked Dark Star overtones (being the same chord), since it sounds like Garcia would rather solo for a while; and for a couple minutes we're in a mini-Dark Star. They don't commit, though, and Phil nudges them back toward Wharf Rat - finally Garcia starts the song.
Wharf Rat is rather sedate - there's barely a solo at the end, as they hasten back to the Playin’ jam. The jam is scattered, and quickly moves into an unsettling space with booming bass & string-scratching. Of course, a Tiger is next - more whimsical than threatening (and rare in all these Playin's: most Playin's did not have a Tiger). After that, follow unnerving sounds of distress & tension, which in a marvelous segue, transform back into the Playin’ jam as Garcia makes warbling flute sounds. (Phil plays a big part here, with a wonderful fuzzy tone.) They soon return to the main theme & final chorus. Garcia sounds a little unfocused in the outro, and in a unique segue, he & Weir extend the final notes of Playin’ into the intro of Morning Dew: a perfect fit. (This reverses the 11/1 medley which went Dew>Playin’.)
Morning Dew is heartfelt, with a great soaring middle jam and a good end jam.
And from 1974:
6/8/74 Playin’>Wharf Rat>Playin’
Phil is loud & frisky and the band’s very energized (even Keith is feeling his oats), so this is a much more “out” Playin’ than usual, excellent throughout with a famous gigantic feedback/Tiger episode in the middle. The jam after that is magnificent. Phil hints at taking the band back to the Playin’ theme, but Garcia wants to keep going, and after some hesitancy he settles on Wharf Rat.
Wharf Rat is very good, with Garcia playing what sounds like a slide solo at the end. The band resumes the Playin’ theme, and the following short jam is both dreamy and restless (and a bit sloppy).http://archive.org/details/gd1974-06-08.sbd.miller.97268.sbeok.flac16
7/21/74 Playin’>Wharf Rat>Truckin’>Playin’
Here is one in-depth description of this great, unusual medley: http://archive.org/post/385011/tdih-1974
This is a celebrated super-jazzy jam; here is one discussion about the transitions: http://archive.org/post/387877/playin-and-gtscarlet-and-gtplayin-and-the-limits-of-the-gd-style
(Bkidwell seems to have disappeared since then – I think he spontaneously combusted while listening to the 7/19/94 Playin’ too many times…)
10/20/74 Playin’>drums>NFA>drums>Other One>Wharf Rat>Playin’
For their “farewell” show the Dead give us a big Playin’ sandwich – the kind they would start playing more in ‘76. With Mickey Hart sitting in, the playing is a bit different than in other ’74 shows. This is more of a laid-back, pretty Playin’ jam that doesn’t really develop compared to other ’74 versions, but is quite gripping. Keith stands out in it; and it’s also notable for the heavy percussion, compared to the one-drummer Playin’s of the past three years. Not surprisingly, there are two drum breaks in the medley! Not Fade Away is jammed-out – though the impression I get is of a “guest musician” jam, where the band is not using their internal improv language so much, but kind of coasting. The Other One is a bit more intense, and Wharf Rat is very good (though Hart had only played it live once, long before).
At the end of the short Wharf Rat solo, Garcia has a flashback and starts playing a line from the old Cryptical Envelopment reprise, which turns naturally back into the Playin’ jam. Garcia returns to the wah, and we get a really nice Playin’ jam for a few minutes, til they return to the chorus and a rousing finish.